There's an undeniable elephant in the room that casts a shadow over the experience of watching Pam & Tommy. Hulu's new series, which dramatizes the media frenzy that sprung up around Baywatch star Pamela Anderson (played here by Lily James) and Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee (Sebastian Stan) after their sex tape was stolen and subsequently leaked to the public in 1995, attempts to re-contextualize it under a modern lens. But it's difficult to watch this show and not think of Anderson, the actual person, who chose not to be involved and didn't authorize its existence. That, coupled with its uneven execution, prevents Pam & Tommy from becoming the Pamela Anderson vindication story it wants to be.
Developed by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen (who also co-stars as Rand Gauthier, the guy behind both the stealing and the leaking, and whose 2014 account to Rolling Stone the series is based on), Pam & Tommy begins with neither Pam nor Tommy, but with Gauthier. Its first episode barely features Pamela at all, and Tommy appears only as a bare-assed hothead of a side character in Gauthier's story. The series makes the bold, misguided choice to start off by withholding its two most interesting elements in favor of explaining at length how Gauthier, a contractor pushed to his breaking point after being fired and threatened by Tommy, was able to break into the Lees' house and drive off with a safe hidden in their garage. As the legend goes, he finds the tape, which Pamela and Tommy made on their honeymoon, hidden among money and guns. Seeing it as both a revenge tactic and a cash cow, he teams up with a porn producer (Nick Offerman) to release it, with VHS copies sold via this newfangled thing called the World Wide Web. As the episodes progress — there are eight in total — Pam & Tommy does, thankfully, shift its focus to its titular characters, attempting to explore the impact of unwanted exposure on their passionate, tumultuous marriage.
Whiplash settles in as the series vacillates in tone, trying all at once to be a crime thriller, a raunchy sex comedy, a critique of the media, and a reflection on a very famous woman's inner turmoil. It never figures out how to effectively tie those elements together, nor is it able to successfully make the case that Gauthier's story is just as important as Pamela's, despite spending a not insignificant amount of time on him. She's so finely drawn, and so mesmerizingly played by James, that every other character feels underwritten in comparison. Any time she's on screen, the material is elevated; any time she's not, the whole show dims.
Much has been made about James' physical transformation into Anderson, and the resemblance is uncanny, but it eventually becomes just a footnote of her performance. James is fantastic, bringing a vulnerability to the role that side-steps any urging a lesser actor might have had to turn Pamela into a caricature. She's enthralling and exuberant, and makes you ache as early as the second episode, when a starry-eyed Pamela serenades her new husband with a charmingly wobbly rendition of "Getting to Know You" from The King and I. It's hard to see, knowing there's a storm coming her way, and James makes sure we feel every ounce of what the invasive press coverage does to Pamela. ("I'm on that tape too," Tommy argues at one point. "No, not like me you're not," she insists, her voice wavering, her expression hardening.) Even against a solid performance from Stan, James is the reason to watch.
Pam & Tommy is the latest in a recent string of re-examinations of maligned women from the '90s, following projects like I, Tonya and American Crime Story: Impeachment. (I, Tonya's director, Craig Gillespie, directed the first three episodes of Pam & Tommy.) It's thorny territory when executed correctly, and even thornier here, where it navigates its points so messily. Take, for example, a moment that has dominated much of the series' pre-premiere news cycle in which Tommy confides in his penis (which is voiced by Jason Mantzoukas) about his love for Pamela. To the show's credit, it's based in reality: Lee's autobiography Tommyland includes an extended conversation between himself and his penis, but seeing something so shamelessly goofy happen amid so much pain adds to the overall discomfort. The joke doesn't really land, it just feels tasteless. (It should be noted that the show glosses almost entirely over Lee's history of physical abuse.)
While the moments that focus on Pamela almost manage to make the case for Pam & Tommy's existence, it's hard to reckon with the real Anderson's role in it all. (Stan has said he has had contact with Lee.) The series is, in theory, on her side, showing how unfairly disparaged she was by the media and the American legal system. It understands that she was violated by Gauthier, by everyone in the world who gleefully contributed to the spread of a private moment (a particularly chilling scene finds a shell-shocked Pamela catching Baywatch crew members watching the tape on set), but it seems to fail to recognize that without Anderson's consent to tell this story at all, Pam & Tommy just ends up feeling like another violation.
Premieres: Feb. 2 on Hulu with three episodes, new episodes weekly
Who's in it: Lily James, Sebastian Stan, Seth Rogen, Nick Offerman, Taylor Schilling, Andrew Dice Clay
Who's behind it: Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen
For fans of: I, Tonya, the '90s
How many episodes we watched: 8